Church Monuments Society

Abergavenny10 Annunciation

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son

Month: December 2021
Type: Effigy  
Era: 15th Century

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St Mary's Priory Church
5 Monk St, Abergavenny NP7 5ND

More about this monument

The Annunciation, the beginning of the Christmas story, in an alabaster panel on the tomb of Gwladus Ddu and her husband William ap Thomas in Abergavenny

The alabaster tomb of Gwladus Ddu and her husband William ap Thomas is one of the glories of  the former priory church of Abergavenny. Gwladus (who died in 1454) and William (d. 1445) have finely-carved effigies. She is in court dress with an elaborately-embroidered horned head-dress. His armour is very up-to-date, with a short cuirass and V-shaped panels on the sabatons on his feet. The couple were once identified by shields on the west panel of the tomb chest, but these have long been lost.

However, the rest of the tomb chest is full of interest. Gwladus survived her husband by nine years, and it is in her marwnad (a Welsh commemorative poem) that the tomb is described. It seems quite likely, therefore, that it was she who designed and commissioned it. The iconography of the tomb chest may therefore give us an insight into the thinking of a powerful woman of the upper gentry in the late medieval period.

The panel at the east end has a carving of the Annunciation, and it is this which makes the tomb an appropriate one for our December Monument of the Month. It is an unusual scene to find on a tomb. The Annunciation is really the beginning of the Christmas story, with the Archangel Gabriel telling Mary that she will bear God’s son. In the Abergavenny panel, Mary is shown as a devout young woman, reading at a prayer desk, when the angel appears to her. Gabriel kneels at the left of the panel, holding a scroll which would have been painted with his salutation, Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. In front of the scroll is a lily in a pot, the symbol of Mary’s virginity. At the top left of the panel is God the Father, crowned and with his hands raised in blessing, leaning out from the balcony of Heaven. From his mouth issues a thread of breath which would have borne the dove of the Holy Spirit (this part of the panel has been damaged, possibly deliberately). In its original form, this would have been a sumptuous piece of work: there are extensive traces of gilding as well as orpiment, on the figures of God the Father and the archangel, and on Mary’s hair.

This image of a young woman reading offered a powerful image of female literacy and learning. While Michael Clanchy argued that elite women were key in the development of lay literacy, their access to books was controversial and they had very little scope for formal learning (From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307: Oxford, Blackwell, 2nd ed., 1993). Depictions of the Virgin Mary with her book, like the depictions of her legendary mother St Anne teaching her to read, were an inspiration and a defence of intellectual life for women.

But what is Mary reading? Something may have been painted on her book, but it has now been lost. Medieval devotional books describing the Annunciation usually have Mary reading the words of the prophet Isaiah, Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium, Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. Devout readers were encouraged to imagine themselves into the Biblical scenes they read about. Some books actually describe Mary reading the prophecy and wanting to be one of the attendants of the virgin who was to bear the child, not realising that she was herself the subject of the prophecy. Gwladus may have read some of these books and she would almost certainly have owned a Book of Hours. These usually had the scene of the Annunciation as their first illustration.  (There is more on this in Laura Saetveit Miles’s The Virgin Mary’s Book at the Annunciation: Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 2020.)

Along the sides of the tomb chest are pairs of prophets and apostles. They carry scrolls which would once have been painted with verses from their prophecies and the clauses of the Apostles’ Creed. Prophets and apostles appear on a number of the painted rood screens of East Anglia and the West Country, but they are much more unusual on tombs. The conclusion of the Creed, ‘I believe in … the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’, was a comforting thing to have on a tomb. The Creed and the prophets also tie in with the Annunciation panel. The third of the apostles is James, and he would have had the clause Qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria virgine (Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary). His companion prophet is Isaiah, with the verse so often given to Mary at the Annunciation, ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’. The whole tomb therefore ties together themes which would have had a particular resonance for a devout and powerful woman at the end of her life.

(A more detailed study of this tomb will appear in vol. 37 of the Monmouthshire Antiquary in 2022.)

Madeleine Gray